THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE
Vale, John Murphy 1959 – 2015
by David Tonkin
A very bright flame indeed was extinguished on 11th October, 2015, when one of our scene’s most respected torchbearers left us. John Murphy had been battling illness for some time, but it’s telling that only in the weeks leading up to his death, when his health deteriorated and cancer took hold, did he think to wind back on his musical activities. He gave his all to the end.
I never knew John well enough to consider him a close friend, but I am one of many who are richer for having known him. We first met in 2003 when I was on the bill of a Death in June and Boyd Rice/NON gig in Adelaide. By then, John had been joining Douglas P. for live performances for some time (Death in June in a live setting will surely be a very different beast in John’s absence). Prior to this, I had heard mutual friends speak highly of him as a friend and comrade. We kept in touch for a few years, and I would receive the occasional postcard, CD, or letter from various parts of Europe. The correspondence stopped a couple of years ago, but it was always nice to watch his movements from afar. Photos and footage invariably showed him in his famous leather jacket.
John’s musical path began in earnest in Australia, in the burgeoning post-punk and scuzzy ‘Little Band’ scenes of late-1970’s and early-1980’s Melbourne. These heady days were captured in Richard Lowenstein’s 1986 cult feature film Dogs in Space—a film as revered as it is reviled (surely in large part due to Michael Hutchence’s painfully self-conscious lead-role performance). John was originally involved in the film as a musical advisor. He inserted himself into that role after seeing how wrong they were getting it (the soundtrack turned out excellent), and ended up appearing in a couple of minor acting roles. He also appears playing in one or two of the bands in the film: keep an eye out for him hitting the skins with an expression of pure punk boredom and rocking up at the door of the main house as a biker on crutches.
He cut his teeth in punk band News, the first single from which was released in 1978. The first of several collaborations with Ollie Olsen followed when the duo formed Whirlywirld, possibly John’s earliest foray into industrial music. But like many of his Antipodean contemporaries at the time—the Birthday Party, the Go-Betweens, the Saints, the Triffids—John looked overseas for inspiration and progress. He once mentioned how hard it was for Australian bands at the time to gain any local support if their music wasn’t instantly classifiable. Clearly that was the case with John, and in 1980 he upped and moved to England. As he pointed out in an interview for SSEX ‘zine, the British music industry was ‘still full of wankers, but wankers who were always looking for new and innovative things’. It began a lifetime living an itinerant’s life, and he split his time over the succeeding years between Australia, the UK, and mainland Europe.
He was under no illusion it would be hard work, but he stuck with it and clearly made an impression: everyone seemed to be drawn into his orbit. The list of artists with which he’s been associated reads like a who’s who of industrial culture: SPK, Whitehouse, Lustmord, Death in June, Current 93, Blood Axis, Der Blutharsch, :Of the Wand and the Moon:, NON, Naevus, Nico, and the list goes on.
It’s important to note that John was a multi-instrumentalist in the truest sense, but there’s no denying that it was his percussive contributions that were most instantly recognisable. The son of a respected jazz drummer, he learned how to play drums and other assorted percussion instruments from the age of four. I recall the first time I saw him on percussion duties with Death in June; I was blown away by how effortless he made it look. It was almost lackadaisical. And yet his timing was perfect, the flourishes were precise, and it was anything but clinical.
His solo projects and those he used to collaborate with select friends—including Shining Vril, Knifeladder, Krang and its variations—were all bright and vital. They also kept alive a rough punk experimentation sorely lacking from much of his contemporaries’ output of the past decade, and his recent work with friends Jon Evans and Julian Percy as Last Dominion Lost is some of the best he’s had a hand in. Clearly he showed no sign of slowing down.
Quite apart from his prodigious musical talent, I’ve no doubt that he was respected equally for his inimitable character. I’m sure everyone who met him would have been struck as I was by his quiet confidence, humility, and his bone-dry wit. We should remember him for these as much as his thirty-seven-year contribution to the music we love. I consider myself lucky to have known John, even just in passing. Everyone I know who has called him a friend, or who has even had cursory contact with him, have all held him in the highest regard and will continue to do so. John was an innovator, a true original, and steadfastly kept to his path.
Safe travels, John.